New Internationalist

Does multiculturalism have a future in Britain?

Multiculturalism in Britain is often a byword for immigration, race and integration Pug50, under a CC License

In February 2011, British Prime Minister David Cameron gave a speech at the Munich Security Conference outlining what he saw as the failures of ‘state multiculturalism.’ For him, it seemed to be about young Muslims getting involved in terrorism. ‘We’ve allowed the weakening of our cultural identity,’ he lamented.

Inspired by this speech and the gravitation of British politics towards an anti-immigration blame culture, ‘multicultural newspaper’ The Prisma, set up the debate: ‘Does multiculturalism have a future in Britain?’

Held at the House of Commons on 9 May 2013, the panel for the event was introduced by Colombian journalist and founder of The Prisma, Mónica del Pilar Uribe, and included social scientist Nigel Pocock, writer and lecturer Mike Jempson, activist and artist Zita Holbourne, international speaker on Islam Abdullah al Andalusi, Peruvian philosopher Claudio Chipana Gutiérrez and Labour member of parliament Jeremy Corbyn.

Most of the panellists were keen to point out the often conveniently forgotten fact that multiculturalism has always existed in Britain. The problems begin when it is used as a political weapon. ‘You can’t collect pebbles from the beach and then complain there are too many stones in your room,’ said Mike Jempson.

When talking about multiculturalism it can be hard to separate race, culture, religion, and immigration. Zita Holbourne argued that the recent pandering of the mainstream parties to the anti-immigration UK Independence Party (UKIP) empowers people with racist views to express and act on them.

An audience member made the point that equating multiculturalism to immigration excludes non-white British people like herself, and those children could grow up British but not truly feel it because the establishment rejects them. What was telling in Cameron’s 2011 speech, which focused on young Muslims, was the repeated use of the terms ‘we’ and ‘they.’

Jempson said we all need to do more to challenge everyday racism and likened his experience of growing up in an Irish Catholic family in 1950s Surrey – with ‘no Irish’ signs and being stoned on the street – to the experiences of some young Muslims in Britain today.

But how can human rights be protected in such an environment? How to view these rights was something that provoked the most debate. Are they based on universal humanity or some other code specific to certain groups, such as religion? Jeremy Corbyn and others seemed to think they could be universal and secular but for Abdullah al Andalusi, true multiculturalism, freedom of expression and recognition of rights is impossible within a society with one law for all. He argued that a person’s conscience, including their belief in God, was the most important factor in determining their actions and that they should be able to act on this freely – as long as they don’t commit murder.

So what are the solutions to all these issues? This was an area I think could have been discussed at much greater length but some members of the panel did have their own projects which had begun to explore this. Jempson edits a magazine called the Bristol Globe which ‘celebrates Bristol’s diversity’ while Holbourne talked about her group Black Activists Rising Against the Cuts which is planning a voter registration drive among young people as well as a campaign condemning continued race discrimination in Britain.

Political trends come and go but racism and discrimination in day-to-day life continues – this is why lasting solutions need to come from the grassroots. Cultures mix, branch off and develop all the time and pretending they don’t is only going to lead to less cohesion within, and between, communities. But ultimately how someone identifies with one culture, or many, is not solely down to their immigration status, skin colour, religion or anything else – it is about where they feel they belong.

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  1. #1 Ben Ellis 08 Dec 13

    With all respect, Britain has not 'always been multicultural'. Before the 1980s, it had a recognisably British culture, albeit on a surface level increasingly americanised. Yes, Britain has always had different cultures existing within it- but they didnt co-exist comfortably side by side in a social utopia, and most of these cultures came to be here as a result of violent invasion, subjugation, and cultural and ethnic genocide. When the Romans came in 43 a.d, the indigenous Britons fought tooth and nail to resist having their cultural identity subsumed, and when the Saxons came in 449 a.d the Britons fought them ferociously too. And the Saxon people, (made up largely of Britons who had been culturally overcome) - fought the Vikings tooth and nail. And when the Normans came in 1066, the English people fought them too. When any of these different cultures existed near each other, they fought all the time. Far from a multicultural utopia. Whats more, the most recent DNA research shows that 75 - 80 percent of British people are descended directly from mesolithic hunters who came across the land bridge into southern Britain, from what is now northern Spain and Portugal, immediately after the Ice Age - 12,000 - 15,000 years ago. The vast majority of the remaining 20 percent are made up of germanic settlers like Saxons, Vikings, Normans that came here in the last 1,500 - 2,000years. I am ethnically British, being made up of English and Welsh heritage, and i dont mind living in a land of many cultures - as long as those cultures respect my culture and ethnic rights as an indigenous person of this island. I know who i am, and where i am from, and i dont appreciate others telling me what i should be, and what relationship i should have with my indigenous lands. The British tribes have as much right as the Aborigines, Maori, or Native Americans to call this land their tribal heartland - and its when people who are not indigenous to Britain attempt to deny us - the people whose ancestors have walked on, fought for, and shaped these lands for 12,000 years - these basic rights that we become understandably insulted.

  2. #2 Stephanie Jones 21 Dec 13

    This article is utter rubbish! Who do you think you are kidding? We have not 'always had multiculturalism'!! People who mention the Celts, Saxons and Normans conveniently forget that this happened over hundreds and hundreds of years! Before the 1960s, and especially before 1997, we had two 'large scale' immigration events - the Huguenots from France who numbered a whopping... 50,000; and the Irish from Ireland who numbered a couple of million. So stop lying to your readers.

    Personally I think multiculturalism has been awful for this country, a huge catastrophic experiment gone wrong. You visit London and you wonder whether you are still in England. Where I live 'the indigenous' and 'the immigrant' (Eastern European) populations don't mix, don't talk to one another and many of the youngsters just fight and bottle each other. What worries me even more is when, inevitably, our economy starts getting worse. With a strong economy the situation always looks rosy, with a weak economy with mass-unemployment we will see sense and rue the day we ever allowed mass-immigration. Personally I would like to see our government start promoting the idea of persuading immigrants to leave. Perhaps through small payments or information about their homeland. We should give money to the poorest countries so that immigrants don't always feel the need to come to our country. We don't give enough aid. Unfortunately I think the immigrants know that England is far superior to their homeland and so that is why we will find it hard to re-root them.

  3. #3 Lucia Nieto 14 Sep 14

    Check out the research about the Latin American community in North London and its multiculturalism

  4. #4 big apples 19 Nov 15

    Multiculturalism was a fail from the very start its not something you can push on people and hope it works. Religion is another thing that doesn't work with islam being the main you only have to look around britain to see how much they segregate themselves from the rest of the communities.

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About the author

Amy Hall a New Internationalist contributor

Amy Hall is a journalist from Cornwall, now based in Brighton, England. Her particular interests include activism, community, social justice and the environment as well as arts and culture. She previously produced and presented the New Internationalist podcast and has written for publications including The Guardian, The Ecologist and Red Pepper. She currently works at the Institute of Development Studies.

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